March 16: Rome Through the Centuries—on Foot

By Harman Boparai

March 16, evening—

The Catholic churches in Rome hold religious and historical significance.  Marie Telling / Religio.

The Catholic churches in Rome hold religious and historical significance. Marie Telling / Religio.

The Religio team’s arrival in Rome has been somewhat staggered. Professor Goldman arrived on Thursday and most of our group arrived Friday morning (although David, who missed the plane, arrived that afternoon). And Professor Stille arrived on Saturday at around noon. He seemed not to know the meaning of “jet lag” as he led our group on an ambitious five-hour walking tour of Rome that took in everything from the city’s ancient Roman roots to its rich Christian heritage to its historic Jewish ghetto. He punctuated the tour with stories of popes, emperors and artists–and numerous cups of cappuccino intended to keep both the guide and guided alert.

We walked to St. Peter’s square, where Stille started telling us about the magnificent basilica built by Bernini and Michelangelo, with the towering Obelisk at the center of the imposing semi-circles of columns, somehow brought from Egypt by the Romans (until someone toppled it and then they had to make it vertical again, a miracle of engineering).

Rome had gone to ruins in the centuries after the fall of Roman Empire, until the Catholic Church actually organized the city again. The basilica and square look like a key from an aerial view. We walked down Via della Conciliazione passing renaissance buildings (and one failed Fascist attempt by Mussolini) towards Castel Sant’ Angelo, the fortress where the Popes stayed safe from attackers in the middle ages. We crossed the bridge over the river Tevere, where people were publicly executed by the medieval church, now a busy business spot for street performers.

On the other side of the river the Columbia group entered the charming small streets of the city, with beautiful old buildings and little corner shops. Stille elaborated on how the city grew organically over the centuries, different parts being added eras came and went.

The next stop Campo de’ Fiori, with a statue of Giordano Bruno, a Copernican who made the mistake of returning to Italy and was burnt on the stake. Post unification of 1870 a statue was built as an expletive to the church (the Pope left the city for the day of the heretic’s statue being unveiled,). Right next to it was Piazza Farnesse, the Farnesse family’s opulent mansion. The family was apparently like the Montagues from Romeo and Juliet, wealthy and very powerful. Now their house is the French Embassy.

Moving along the cobblestone streets and taking a break for coffee, seven of us saw some journalists near the Senate building waiting for a possible sighting of the talented Silvio Berlusconi. With the journalists we ran to the other side of the building hearing a rumor he was exiting there, but it was only a rumor. It was reminder for us that while the Vatican has a pope, the Italian government still doesn’t have a government.

We moved on to see the works of Caravaggio, the 16th century Baroque era painter who made the paintings of Saint Matthew displayed in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Stille described how his “light and dark” technique brought out the life in his biblical art. “This technique used in the painting makes the theme of martyrdom come to life and makes it magical and extraordinary,” said Stille. He depicted violent realism of his era in art, roamed around with a sword picking up honor fights and was killed in 1610.

The ancient Pantheon attracts throngs of visitors, including the Religio team. Jesse Marx / Religio.

The ancient Pantheon attracts throngs of visitors, including the Religio team. Jesse Marx / Religio.

Then the Pantheon, the temple of all Gods, since 27 BC, rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 126 AD, the marvel of engineering prowess that was lost for a millennium. The bronze doors stand the same that were there two millenia ago. We recollected after coffee next to the elephant statue of Bernini and a very quick stop at Church of St. Ignacio, the group appreciating the beautiful dome of the church, which Stille told us was actually not a dome but an illusionist painting, prompting a very well-worded eloquent “Whoa, what! No way,” from me.

We then rushed to the Jewish Ghetto to reunite with Prof. Goldman and meet Luca Fiorentino, entrusted with redoing the exterior of the ghetto buildings and the former Vice President of the Roman Jewish community. Fiorentino told them the chilling history of the ghetto, the isolation of the community for centuries. They lived within a little more than a block of land, 3,500 people. As they grew in numbers they were allowed to expand vertically, with five gates of the ghetto requiring a special pass to go through. Situated right next to the river, the ghetto would get flooded every few years forcing the residents to move to floors above. There were problems with hygiene and over-crowding, until finally in 1870 with Italian unification the ghetto limits were broken.

After a moving tour of the ghetto, and half of the group sleep-walking from the exhaustion and walking, there was dinner time. We went to Trattoria der Pallaro Ristorante, for dinner and a talk with Fiorentino’s son, Gabriele, about a young Jewish association and the issues they cared about. There was wine and ante-pasta and pasta, chatter, laughter and “I feel like I travelled Rome in a day,” by Stephen Jiwanmall. The group took cabs back to the hotel, trying to sing in Hindi (led by the three Indian members) and reached back home by 11 p.m.